Wendy's fries and burger

Wendy’s greets you with a smile, or at least Wendy herself does. The smiling redhead has become a familiar sight around the country, and the square burgers the brand sells stand out amid the circular competition. Over the years, the chain has fostered a reputation for quality food — particularly fresh rather than frozen beef. That goes without mentioning the chain’s signature Frosty dessert or its dedication to making salads available.

How well do you really know Wendy’s, though? What hides behind the star’s bright smile? The Wendy’s Mascot has her own untold truth, but this is about your relationship with the chain.

The truth is that Wendy’s probably knows you better than you think, and the chain uses that information to its advantage. This fast-food stalwart has a lot of tricks up its sleeve, and it employs a range of masterful strategies to get you through the door, change your order, and convince you that spending more money generates greater savings. Whether you love this American fast food icon or avoid it, once you’re wise to these tactics, you may change your next drive-thru order.

1. Paying big for toppings

Wendy's burger hamburger

A great untold truth of Wendy’s is that while quality is their fame, toppings is their game. According to listings on Real Menu Prices, when Dave’s Hot ‘n’ Juicy ¼ lb. Single with Cheese costs $4.19, Dave’s Hot ‘n’ Juicy ½ lb. Double with Cheese costs $5.19. Doubling your meat only costs a dollar more, so why does a Son of Baconater (with a single patty) cost $4.69 while a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger (which also has a single patty) costs $1.99?

At Wendy’s, it’s all about the toppings. For example, a Jr Bacon Cheeseburger costs $1.99. It already has bacon and cheese, so other burgers shouldn’t be able to use those as a substantial price markup. The Triple Bacon Jalapeno Burger has three patties, so it makes sense for it to cost $3 more, which would be around $5, right? Business Insider notes that it costs $8.59. The pickled jalapenos, fried onions, cheese sauce, and jalapeno sauce are the only difference. Apparently, these few additional toppings are worth more on their own than one and a half Jr Bacon Cheeseburgers.

2. Believing the salads are super healthy

Wendy's salads red background

Salads are supposed to be healthy. They’re full of raw vegetables that crunch and give you lots of fiber with very few calories. At least, that’s the theory. Although these salads have lots of lettuce, Wendy’s healthier options aren’t as healthy as you might assume. A full-size seasonal Summertime Strawberry Salad and basic Parmesan Caesar Salad are the only two under 500 calories, as reported by FastFoodNutrition.org.

Some offenders are worse than others, according to Eat This, Not That. Your diet does not have a friend in Wendy’s Taco Salad. With 620 calories, 28 grams of fat (10 grams saturated fat), 66 grams of carbs, and a whopping 1,760 milligrams of salt, it delivers a lot more than healthy greens. Despite the bacon, the Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad may be a superior choice. It still has 610 calories and 41 grams of fat (11 grams saturated fat), but it only has 18 grams of carbs, and it has 500 fewer milligrams of sodium. Even better, where the Taco Salad only provides 28 grams of protein to keep you full and energized, the Southwest packs in 43 grams.

It’s worth noting all the salads have fewer calories if you use the dressing sparingly. You could skip it entirely, but dressing hides many flaws of fast food salads, and that’s not how they are designed to be eaten.

3. Dishing out for limited time menu items

Wendy's burger in special packaging

Life is short, especially when you’re a specialty item on the Wendy’s menu. Although all fast food restaurants cycle through seasonal treats, Wendy’s goes through premium goodies quickly, and they don’t promise a return. Unlike the inevitable rise of the fish sandwich every spring, Wendy’s doesn’t always bring back menu items, even if they’re popular. Why? They do it so you’ll buy what’s next.

In a piece on limited-time-only sales and promotions, Time reports a customer "worries they’ll feel left out" if they miss a sale. Specialty items at Wendy’s operate under the same principle, and because Wendy’s rarely announces an item is about to leave, every minute with your favorite could be your last. Alas, Pretzel Bacon Pub Cheeseburger, gone (maybe forever), but fondly remembered.

According to Psychology Today, part of a great limited-time sale strategy is aggressive social media marketing, something we all know Wendy’s has mastered. You see the new sandwich online, and suddenly it’s everywhere. If you’re an experienced Wendy’s connoisseur, you know flashy new sandwiches are here for a good time, not a long time. It becomes an urgent matter Wendy’s is happy to remind you about every time you check your Twitter.

If you eat it and you like it, then you’re really hooked, because your new favorite has a fickle mistress. Why not go again and enjoy it while you can? When the new sandwich drop-kicks this one off the menu, the game begins again.

4. The Wendy’s menu hides the value options

Wendy's drive through thru menu

They say you eat with your eyes first, and Wendy’s wants to feed you premium items. If you go to Wendy’s, you’ll find your options conveniently listed on the menu. But not all options receive equal billing. The pricier the item, the more attention the menu tries to direct its way. Classic, affordable options like the Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger appear in a tiny section, usually at the bottom, far right of the board. The Dave’s Classics, higher-priced chicken sandwiches, seasonal salads, and other premium choices often get entire chunks of the menu with combo and item prices listed. The value corner goodies don’t even get pictures.

According to the chain’s earning call, as reported by Restaurant Business, Wendy’s CEO, Todd Penegor said, "We need to have that right balance between driving them in and trading them up." That means even if you’re drawn by the siren song of a $2 cheeseburger, the menu’s job is to upsell you on the $5 alternative. If you’re in a rush, especially during busy restaurant hours, and you don’t immediately see what you planned to order, switching things up for that big, juicy burger in the picture sounds even better.

Heads up, they use similar tricks with their online menu, listing cheaper sandwiches at the very bottom. You have to watch a parade of their priciest options, and the least-expensive bites hide at the bottom.

5. Ads on Wendy’s packaging invite you back

Hand giving Wendy's bag through window

Even if you never turn on the television, browse the internet, or use social media, Wendy’s will get its ads in front of your eyes. All you have to do is buy their food. While you’re trying to enjoy lunch, Wendy’s is already helping you plan your next visit.

"Your breakfast coulda been free," your cup informs you. The bag holding your burger and fries declares the same thing. Granted, this was a very limited promotion according to Newsweek, but still, this promotion is just one example of Wendy’s packaging advertisements. They know you’re already eating there, so why not tempt you back? Paper bags may not be the most reliable advisors in most situations, but who could say no to free food?

Here’s the trick: you get that free breakfast, and you get some coffee to go with it. You’ve already spent more than the ad for free breakfast suggested you would. If you like the free part of your breakfast, you’ll probably come back for more. Suddenly, you’re visiting Wendy’s not just for lunch, but breakfast as well. You don’t have to visit every day, but if you swing by once or twice in the next few weeks to start your day, you’ve done just what the Wendy’s packaging hoped you would.

6. Wendy’s loyalty program makes you spend more

Wendy's and fast food apps on phone

Loyalty programs sound like a great way to save. They reward your loyalty, after all. Rewards don’t cost you anything. It’s something you get, not something the restaurant gains. The truth is a little more complicated, and rest assured, Wendy’s has a lot to gain from its loyalty rewards program.

It turns out, loyalty program members spend more on take-out from restaurants like Wendy’s (via Restaurant Dive). In fact, they spent twice as much as customers who weren’t part of a loyalty program. How does that happen? There are two ways a loyalty program convinces you to buy more. The first step is by collecting data to help the company better target its customer base (that’s you) with deals that will get you into the store, appealing, new items, etc. Remember, loyalty programs require apps for your phone. They get data from you even as you collect points.

Medium reports that loyalty programs also use psychology to encourage spending. Any kind of goal or points system rewards making purchases, especially larger purchases. Over time, this conditions you to see spending more on individual purchases as an investment towards in-app rewards. If you’ve ever bought something just because you get extra points or a small discount from purchasing that particular item, you’ve seen this concept in action.

7. Wendy’s combos convince you to pay for soda again

Hand holding Wendy's cup against black background

It’s no secret that restaurants make a lot of their profits from soda sales. All you have to do is compare the cost of a fountain drink at Wendy’s to the price of an entire 2-liter at a grocery chain. You may have heard your parents scoff at spending so much on a drink, and they wouldn’t be alone. Americans buy less soda with their fast food than they used to.

Maybe you pride yourself on saving money by only getting drinks when they come as part of a combo. There’s bad news ahead.

The truth is that the combo is playing the same trick as the solo fountain drink order. It costs more than you realize. A Dave’s Hot ‘n’ Juicy costs $4.19, according to Fast Food Menu Prices. You can make it a small combo for $2 more. Upgrading to a medium combo is an extra 60 cents, and a large upgrade will cost you $1.10. A large fry is $2.19, so you could get more food for less than a medium combo if you just bought the sandwich and large fries separately. If you get the small combo, you’re only paying about 30 cents for your soda, but you’re still paying for a fountain drink.

Remember, if you get a large combo, you’re ultimately paying $1.51 for a drink, and soda remains one of the biggest items where fast food restaurants really make their money.

8. Limited-time Wendy’s discounts hook you

Wendy's fries sit table

Just as Wendy’s specialty menu items are not long for this world, neither are their discounts. They have a longer-lasting impact than you may realize, too. A great discount does more than move customers through the door, though. Food & Drink Resources argues that it changes how and what they buy. Wendy’s $1 any size fry offer encouraged diners to upgrade. Why not get a large when it costs the same as a small, right? That sorta marketing inspires habits.

If you’ve ever tried giving a kid a smaller portion than you gave them the last time they went out to eat, you will hear about it. The truth is, adults aren’t above the same desires as the little ones in the backseat. Not all drive-thru decisions are based on logic. The price difference between a small and large is only about 40 cents, and can you really put a price on happiness? Apparently, Wendy’s can.

A similar buy-one-get-one breakfast sandwich deal set the stage for doubling your breakfast order, or sharing breakfast with a friend or coworker. You try it, you like it, you come back for it.

9. Wendy’s Twitter account entertains you with ads

Phone with Twitter icon

Wendy’s isn’t just known for burgers. They’re known for roasting the competition on Twitter to the grill and back. It’s entertaining, and most of the time, the Twitter profile’s content doesn’t feel like an ad.

This is a trick, because Wendy’s Twitter profile is dedicated to bringing in new customers and driving repeat business. The clever banter comes with a mission, and their Twitter war over breakfast demonstrates this very well.

If you didn’t know Wendy’s planned to bring breakfast back to its menu before the biscuits and sausages appeared, you probably weren’t online. Wendy’s put McDonald’s in its crosshairs and opened fire in advance of their launch. It made Wendy’s look cheeky in a fun way and gave the chain a platform to continue highlighting its rival’s weaknesses. Wendy’s calls out hilarious truths while filling your feed with advertisements for their products.

Wendy’s Twitter is here to remind you about the latest specialty items and the perceived failings of the competition, and it’s going to make you laugh while you eat up the ads.

10. Wendy’s compare itself to the competition

Mcdonald's fries red yellow background

Fast food will never be gourmet. That isn’t what burger chains like Wendy’s aim to make, but everyone still cares about quality. No one wants cold fries when a fry craving hits. Rather than simply telling you how great its own products are, Wendy’s pulls a clever trick by comparing itself to its biggest competitors.

"We don’t cut corners," its adverts explain, implying round patties are some kind of substandard cheat. It sounds good, and you know exactly which burger chains with round patties they’re referencing.

As part of the advertising for their new Hot and Crispy Fries, Wendy’s directly attacked McDonald’s and implicated a few other chains. The ad claimed Wendy’s new fries got twice as much love from consumers in a study, to which a voice on a drive-thru intercom screams. Squeaky hinges and a dingy, weedy parking lot represent a generic burger joint offering cold, soggy fries. It makes the shots of Wendy’s branded packaging and glowing, fried potatoes look even better by comparison.

Although this probably won’t be the sole element in your next dining decision, when you hear someone ask "Do you want fries with that?" the ad may pop to mind. You may judge the fries you receive with that bias. So, Wendy’s makes their offerings more appealing while sparking grief between you and every other carton of drive-thru fries.

11. Special signs inspire upgrades

Wendy's restaurant banner

Wendy’s pregames your subconscious before you even get to the menu. They have signs about their newest, biggest burgers on banners and special cardboard displays that woo you to upgrade. These signs appear in strategic points, usually in places where you have to wait.

Banners stand in corners where lines naturally form just inside the main door. As you wait for the family of five ahead of you to figure out which options they want in their kids’ meals, you get to stare at a juicy, premium sandwich with alluring toppings just inches away from your elbow. It’s close enough to touch, and it feels oh-so-very accessible.

The drive-thru pulls the same tricks. Ads lurk around the corner, ahead of the menu, prompting you to reconsider your original order. They showcase the latest offers and priciest specialty options. You arrive at the menu primed to compare the photo-less value items with the vision of perfection on the banner.

12. Frosty coupons and tags ensure return visits

Wendy's frosty on dark background

Wendy’s Halloween Frosty Boo! Books give customers five coupons for a free Jr. Frosty. They cost a buck, and they make you stand out at Halloween. However, although they don’t require an additional purchase to redeem, they are for kids. What are the chances an adult will take a kid to Wendy’s and get nothing else at all? It’s a discount purchase for a collection of cheap items that will inspire additional purchases, even if they aren’t strictly required.

To combat the few hold-outs who do manage to use a Boo! Book coupon without buying so much as a coffee, Wendy’s introduced the Frosty Key Tag. It also gives you the smallest available Frosty for free, but only with a purchase. Once you spend $2 on your Frosty tag, you can come in every day for a free Frosty. That means you’re coming in every day to buy something else. This may be the most expensive free Frosty habit of your life.